The three-decades-old Consumer Protection Act (CPA) has been overhauled and a new Act is in place. In this background, the theme of last year’s National Consumer Day (December 24) was chosen as ‘The CPA 2019 - A turning point for Indian Consumers’. If the newly added features in the CPA 2019 like a proposal to establish the Consumer Protection Authority, the introduction of new concepts like mediation, e-commerce and product liability, if implemented, will go a long way in insulating the consumers from exploitation.
But the moot question is will the new Act be brought into force or go the way like the 1986 Act, particularly in Karnataka, where the implementation of the CPA has not been encouraging. Karnataka has been one of the pioneers in consumer protection. Way back in the 1970s, the state was the first to establish a consumer protection board. Three years ago, the department in charge of consumer affairs gave a major boost to consumer awareness by establishing District Consumer Information Centres (DCICs) and providing funds for School consumer clubs.
This apart, the department is observing World Consumer Day and National Consumer Day at a considerable cost. While these activities are required, the Department has to focus on larger governance issues if the CPA is to be a turning point. Both the 1986 and 2019 Act envisages the constitution of the state and District Consumer Protection Councils the object of which is to receive inputs from experts from a cross-section of the society on matters relating to consumer protection.
Despite a Public Interest Litigation being filed, even after almost 15 years, the State Council is yet to be established. Though a few District Councils, under the chairmanship of the respective Deputy Commissioners, have been constituted, meetings have not been conducted and their terms have lapsed. It is high time the new government takes steps to reconstitute the state and District Councils as per the requirements of the CPA.
At present, Consumer Affairs is handled by the Department of Food, Civil Supplies, and Consumer Affairs. There is a shortage of staff and the department is unable to devote time to consumer affairs, as it is busy managing the public distribution system. As a result, Consumer Affairs has taken a backseat. In the absence of knowledgeable persons, consumer protection in the state is without a proper goal or direction. To rectify the situation, it is essential that a separate department is created for consumer affairs. Alternatively, a directorate for consumer affairs within the department should be thought of.
The directorate can be assisted by a few experts in the field of consumer protection. There is a wrong notion that consumer protection is encouraging consumers to file complaints in the Consumer Forum/Commission and claim some relief. This restricted meaning needs to change. Over the years, there is a paradigm shift in the concept of consumer protection. Besides products and services, it has taken in its fold issues like the right to information, right to public services, right to food and right to good governance, etc.
Closer scrutiny Besides, the drugs control department, legal metrology, food security, food safety, investor protection, etc, are issues that are directly connected to consumer protection. But the functioning of these departments needs closer scrutiny. None of these departments have a separate cell or an official for consumer affairs. Further, they do not have a separate budget for consumer protection.
The Food Safety Commission (FSC) has a great responsibility in protecting consumer health. Sadly, the FSC’s functioning does not provide hope. Just visit the FSC website and you will know how consumer-friendly it is. The situation at the district level is even worse. The functioning of the Karnataka State Food Security Commission (KSFSC) is another example. Even after three years of coming into existence, the Commission is yet to host a website.
The Commission being a public authority is yet to designate Public Information Officers and publish information as required under Section 4[b] of the Right to Information Act. The FSC and the KSFSC are yet to bring out a leaflet on its formation, structure, functions, etc. The less said the better about the condition of the website of the Legal Metrology Department. It will be a real turning point if the State and District Consumer Protection Councils, consisting of consumer activists and heads of major departments, are constituted at the earliest.
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